The last straw was that plant.
That little fucking plant.
I don’t remember what it was, only that it was supposed to be hard to kill, even for me. She’d said it in a joking way when she gave it to me, and I knew, logically, she didn’t mean anything by it. Not really. But it stung all the same. I don’t think I smiled or even said thank you. I just took it and closed the door in her face.
Mom didn’t deserve that.
I didn’t deserve her.
Looking back, I’m not even sure why I accepted it. I didn’t want a plant, even one that could supposedly survive the likes of me. I set it down in the dust of the windowsill and retook my seat on the couch, sinking into the perfectly shaped imprint molded into its cushions.
And then I picked up the nearby bottle and forgot all about that little fucking plant.
It only took two weeks for me to kill the unkillable. By the time I thought of it again, it had withered into a pile of drooping brown. I picked up its terracotta pot and sat with it between my legs on the floor, staring down at its bone dry soil and skeletal limbs.
Titanic, I remember thinking. It had never occurred to me to name the thing before then, but it seemed appropriate.
Indestructible, meet iceberg.
That seemed appropriate too. A big chunk of ice, just floating along, destroying whatever came into contact with it.
A glance around my apartment only reinforced the idea. Once upon a time, I’d hidden the cans and bottles. I’d slur my denial to anyone who pointed out the obvious. I held down a job. Had a fiancée. I was ok.
I was ok.
Except at night. Then I needed a little help sleeping. Just a little something to quiet the whispers. They liked to sneak up on me once I was in bed, filling the silence with all the things I spent the day running from.
What’s the point of anything?
Everyone would be better off without you.
Nobody cares about you. They wish you’d just…disappear.
Drowning them worked for a while. Let me sleep. But when morning came and I sobered up, they’d be back.
They always came back.
My fiancée didn’t. Neither did the calls from my office, asking where I was. They proved what I’d known all along: The world would move along just fine without me in it. What good was I to anyone anyway?
I couldn’t even even keep a little fucking plant alive.
I don’t know that I thought about it, really. More like I just started moving. I grabbed every unfinished bottle of booze I had and shoved them in a duffel bag. The benadryl was an afterthought. I used it sometimes when the vodka wasn’t hitting quite right. There was probably enough in there.
Enough for one more sleep.
I didn’t want to do it in my apartment. Even if it was messy, my parents could probably still get the deposit back. A consolation prize for all I’d put them through. It was better than nothing.
It was already dark when I left. At first, I just drove around. I didn’t know where to go. Where did other people go? Motels. Parking garages. Empty buildings.
I’d made it to the suburbia of my childhood, across town from how far I’d fallen. My parents still lived in the same house I’d grown up in. One right turn and I’d be seconds away from pulling into their driveway.
I went left.
Old Long Ridge turned on to Hunting Ridge turned on to Haviland, and as I crept along the winding road, I realized my subconscious had taken me that way for a reason. My car slowed, until I was idling in front of an overgrown lot threatening to swallow the two story colonial at its center.
The captain’s house.
It had been over a decade since my last visit, but it looked unchanged. Then again, I’d only ever gone at night, hiding the finer details under shadow. But I might as well have been seventeen again, sneaking around the back to break in with my friends.
All in the hopes of seeing the good captain.
I never had, despite being hyped up on the legend of the original owner, a sea captain who refused to give up ownership even after death. People claimed to hear him walking about upstairs or the piano playing from one of the rooms. They said he was mostly fond of children after losing his own so young and any who came into his house would be welcome, but adults beware. Most I ever got was the feeling of being watched, but even then, it wasn’t really scary when I knew it was just my imagination. Still, the stories kept most people away and it’d been a fun place for a bunch of kids to hang out over the years.
Isolated, empty, abandoned. It now seemed the perfect place for my last hurrah.
I drove up the street and parked alongside the curb, leaving my keys in the ignition. If someone wanted to snag that oil burning, gas guzzling POS, they were welcome to it. I had no more plans for it. With my duffel bag in hand, I hiked the mile or so to the captain’s house and walked the snarled footpath to its back door.
The wooden frame was warped and rotten, but a few solid knocks with my shoulder saw the door swinging open to a dark interior. My memory of the place was hazy, but I recalled this leading into the kitchen, and stepped inside, arm outstretched into shadow.
The stink of stale air and mildew enveloped me immediately in an oppressive cloud. The silence hummed, just as thick. I hadn’t had the forethought to bring a flashlight, so I stood in the entryway, waiting for my eyes to adjust enough to make out the uneven shapes of broken cabinets and countertops. I skirted through the gloom, taking each step slowly to avoid running into any of the stray pieces of furniture that still remained.
It seemed silly to worry about that kind of thing, given the purpose of my visit, but I was careful all the same.
I chose the living room as The Spot. It had a nice bay window looking out over the woods. Even though the moonlight didn’t give me much to see by, I could imagine it well enough. Not bad for a last view.
It was strange, how calm I felt. I sat and unloaded my arsenal, lining them up in a neat row before me. I sat for a bit, staring out over the lawn and into the naked trees.
I thought of my mom. Of her plant. Of all the ways she’d tried to save me.
I thought of my dad. Of the fishing trips I kept promising to go on with him. Of all the ways I let him down.
That was enough thinking for me.
I grabbed the first bottle and unscrewed its cap, lifting it to the window in silent cheers.
Here’s to the first of the last.
As I brought it to my lips, a single discordant note played upon an out of tune piano rang throughout the house from upstairs.
I froze, mouth of the bottle against my lips. The house weighed in heavily around me, but the quiet had resumed.
After another minute spent without incident, I tipped the bottle again.
Another angry note vibrated through the darkness, this one sending me to my feet with a burst of hot adrenaline.
I wasn’t alone.
In time with my thought, chair legs scraped across the floor overhead and the boards creaked.
One heavy step.
I didn’t believe in the captain, but I did believe in territorial squatters, and I wanted nothing to do with them.
My plans abandoned for the time being, I grabbed up as many bottles as I could and hightailed it toward the kitchen door again. Overhead, the steps had made it to the hall, each landing with a leaden thud.
My fingers searched frantically in the dark for the kitchen door knob. When they finally closed around it, I yanked hard, prepared for it to be a fight against the warped frame, but the door refused to budge. I fought against it, pulling as hard as I could, but the door would not open.
The top step groaned as the person upstairs began their descent.
More concerned with getting caught than for my booze, I set the bottles down on the nearest counter and scrambled to find a room to hide in. Each step wheezed beneath the weight of the approaching person, signaling how little time I had.
I threw myself at the first door I came across.
Behind it, a small room lit by a naked hanging bulb. In the center, a nude man, so thin I could count his ribs, sat with his back to me. His head was bowed, chin resting against his chest. I stumbled back with a yelp, but he gave no indication he heard. He was mumbling, I realized.
“One more. One more. I just want one more. I need it. Just one.”
As the words tumbled in a flurry from his lips, his head began to raise in an agonizing series of jerking cracks.
“One more. One more. One. More!”
He dropped to the floor, his bony limbs stretching like spider legs as he scuttled about to face me. His features were sunken against his skull, and where his eyes should have been, only black holes.
He sprang at the door, mouth opened wide, broken teeth bared. No longer concerned about noise, I slammed the door and bolted toward the front of the house, searching for the front door. Impossibly, the hallway stretched on, turning sharply, ending abruptly so I had to double back.
And at every turn, another door.
Somehow, he was behind all of them, the withered man, scratching at them, rattling their handles, hammering against them, always screaming for just one more.
I screamed, fear driving me blindly onward, and behind each door, their voices rose with mine.
The house shouldn’t have been this big. Couldn’t have been. And yet all I could find was more hallways with more doors to either side.
Except holes had started to appear in them, and his long, pointed fingers reached out, clawing and scraping and digging against the wood, making the holes bigger. And bigger.
Skeletal arms swiped at me from either side, snagging my clothes, trying to pull me toward them, but I managed to shoulder through, coming away with slashes across my arms and face.
From somewhere in the house, heavy footsteps sounded.
The withered men with matching, eyeless faces were starting to wriggle through their holes. Some were already out to their waists, scrambling for purchase against the floor. It didn’t matter where I turned. Where I ran.
They were coming.
A cold hand clasped around my ankle. Another around my forearm. I screamed again, and again they joined me, a chorus of terror. I pulled against them, fighting as hard as I could, but more grabbed me,
As their nails dug into my flesh, tearing me down toward them, a single thought broke through the surface of my horror.
I don’t want to die!
I threw my head back, struggling beneath the weight of the withered men, and screamed again.
“Help,” I sobbed toward the dark ceiling. To no one.
A clawed hand grasped at my face, as if to silence me.
Fingers curled around my shirt collar and hauled me upward.
I was on my hands and knees, chest heaving, in the living room again. The withered men and their doors were gone. My eyes flew back and forth, looking for any sign of them, but the house was as it had been when I entered. Slowly, legs barely able to hold me up, I stood.
From somewhere upstairs, a soft melody drifted from one of the rooms, played on a piano perfectly in tune.
The captain was playing me out.
I staggered out into the night air, my booze forgotten, and walked in a daze around the house.
I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.
I paused in the front yard and turned numbly back toward the house.
In one of the second story windows, a large, dark shadow was staring back.
Instead of fear, a sense of peace, temporary as it might be, settled over me.
I made it back to my car, left untouched, and turned it on to backtrack down Haviland, to Hunting Ridge, to Old Long Ridge.
This time, though, I turned down my parents’ street, and the long road of recovery.
I can’t explain what happened in that house. What was real, what wasn’t. Maybe I had a psychotic break or something; my brain finally deciding enough was enough and forcing me to ask for help.
Or maybe the old captain really does haunt that house on Haviland Road, and he recognized one of his kids, broken, hurting, and grown, but his, coming home and helped him face his demons.